The preschool gender gap hurting Australian girls | Women's Agenda

The preschool gender gap hurting Australian girls

If you were to read that of the world’s 775 million illiterate people two-thirds are female, would you be surprised?

As shocking as this statistic is, it is probably not that surprising. We hear stories of girls like Malala Yousafzai shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls education in Pakistan. We know that in many countries educational access is not equal for both genders.

What is surprising is that in Australia there is also a significant gender educational disparity – especially in access to preschool education.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has recently released indicators that show that 3.4% fewer girls than boys attended a preschool program in the year before school. In some states the gender gap is even more substantial. In NSW, for example, 6% fewer girls than boys access a preschool program.

Does preschool (early education) really matter? The evidence suggests that it does – both academically, socially and even health wise. More and more research is telling us that early education is critical. A child’s brain builds rapidly in the first five years of life – ensuring they have access to high quality early education and care in those early years really does matter.

We know that children who have had access to early education under the guidance of a specialist early childhood teacher score up to 30 points higher in their NAPLAN tests in Year 3. In international PISA tests 15 year olds that have had access to early education score a full year ahead of their peers. In the USA, longitudinal studies are showing that children who attended preschool have higher incomes and better health at age 30 to 40 than those that didn’t.

So yes, it matters. And so it especially matters that girls are missing out.

Why are they missing out? The raw statistics don’t exactly answer that question, but they give us some good hints. In most states and territories over 95% of children access a preschool program in the year before school. NSW is always the one trailing the figures – with only 83.1% of boys and just 77.4% of girls attending a preschool program. Why the difference? Quite simply, because NSW invests significantly less in early education than other states. The consequence of this under investment is higher preschool fees and consequent lower attendance rates than other states.

So NSW children miss out due to underinvestment by the NSW Government, but this does not answer the question as to why girls miss out more than boys.

A hint lies in the figures that show that attendance is a lot higher in the highest socio-economic areas in NSW (75.7%) than in the lower ones (67.3%). When one looks at this statistic, the difference between NSW and the rest of the world becomes less of a jump.

When educational access is dependent on income, it is girls who miss out. That’s as true in developing countries as it is in a country like our own.

So why is educational access in NSW dependent on parental income? Why does NSW spend less on early education than other states and territories?

More importantly, will this ever change? Will girls in NSW ever have the same chance as girls in other states and territories?

When Adrian Piccoli first was appointed Education Minister in NSW he promised that when the money became available he would love to see NSW funding early education in line with the rest of the country. But somehow, the money never becomes available. The Minister rearranged the deck chairs slightly by ensuring that services receive more income for those families on the lowest incomes from the start of 2014. This was done, more or less, within the same funding envelope however – so other children miss out.  Children with additional needs, for example, are now only eligible for funding for one year of preschool education rather than two or three.

Without substantial new investment by the NSW Government, NSW girls especially will continue to have less access to early education than their male peers.

And we thought this kind of thing only happened in other countries.

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